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  • Diane Janowski

Bears and Monkeys in Elmira

By Diane Janowski, Elmira City Historian

 

A bear pit was completed at Eldridge Park the last week of June 1891. Two caverns and a pen were afforded for three bears. It cost nearly $3,000 and was fifty feet long and twenty feet wide, lined with brick and stone.


Eldridge Park monkeys
New monkey family photo in the Star-Gazette August 6, 1937

 

On July 4, 1892, a group of fifty men surrounded the bear pit and fed the bear peanuts. One person threw in a large firecracker, and the bear “retreated into his own private quarters.”On August 18, 1895, a “Big Bear Fight” happened between the three bears in the pit. “Queen,” the large Rocky Mountain black bear, had frequently fought with the young cinnamon bear (a gift of city attorney John McDowell.) Queen “gave the cinnamon bear a death blow.” Park Superintendent Thomas Pardoe said the animals were horribly cut and torn. The zookeepers “drove the large bears into their dens with blows from a heavy iron pole.”

 

In June 1896, the park had a pair of bear cubs. On June 16, one of the cubs had had enough of captivity and climbed out of the pit. The frantic actions of the mama bear noted his disappearance. Park employees chased the poor baby through the park and finally returned him to his mother.

 

Opening day in 1902 noted that the bear pit was the hit of the park, with at least 50 spectators at the attraction at all times.

 

The first municipal golf course in the area was at Eldridge Park in 1923. It had six holes – all of them “short enough for iron shots.” Nobody showed interest because it wasn’t much of a course, and it was abandoned in 1925.


The Star-Gazette reported that in 1936, six rhesus monkeys were purchased from Camden, New Jersey, and arrived by express train on July 31. It was hoped that they would help bring more tourists to the park. In less than a week, Sammy, Chet, Ozzie, Kelly, Junie, and Toots proved to be the hit of Elmira, entertaining the crowds from “dawn until long after dusk.” “Sammy was the oldest, biggest, and ugliest of the performers. Oscar is next in size, Junie is long and thin, Kelly is chunky and small, Toots is Kelly’s girlfriend, and Chet is the smallest and most popular.” The monkeys preferred lettuce to peanuts, but bananas were, of course, their favorite food.

 

The roller coaster opened earlier that summer, creating “fresh interest.” According to the same-day Star-Gazette, “Long waiting lines [for the coaster] are the rule on busy nights.” City Superintendent Fred Wright estimated that on several weekends that summer, crowds exceeded 7,500.

 

During the Works Progress Administration (WPA) years, improvements to the park provided jobs for 70 WPA workers lasting about six months. The 1939-40 project had an expenditure of $28,000, with the WPA paying $20,000 and the city paying $8,000. Mayor Maxwell Beers thought it was too much for the city’s part. City Manager Colus Hunter was “not enthusiastic” about the project and rejected it on its first vote. The project included a concrete bridge and culvert over the lake’s outlet (near today’s Thunderbirds ride), demolition of the bear pit, and a new road around the north end of the lake. New benches and picnic tables were also added. The cement and brick refuse from the bear pit was used in the dike for Newtown Creek at Sullivan Street.

 

In 1941, the WPA resumed work at Eldridge with new fireplaces, picnic houses, and new roads.

 

Also, on September 18, 1941, a monkey escaped from the monkey house for the second time that summer. At some point the next day, it was seen swinging in the rafters at the Elmira Foundry. The next day, he was spotted near the Reformatory. Two days later, he was seen at the top of Hamilton Hall on Elmira College’s campus. That Friday night, he climbed into a dorm window and surprised a student doing homework. Saturday and Sunday brought a “monkey frenzy” to the college neighborhood. Hundreds of children chased him, “dogs barked,” hundreds of cars of lookers jammed the campus area. The monkey snickered at the crowd from up in the trees. Patrolman Edwin Dyer said, “The congestion was worse than in Elmira’s business section at the peak of the Christmas season.” Neighbors made homemade traps. A net almost caught the poor fellow. The crowd was too much for the police force to handle, and I am sorry to report that on September 22, 1941, after futile attempts to capture it, the monkey was shot and killed by Robert Long, a concessionaire of Eldridge Park, on the northeast corner of Washington and College Avenue.

 

 


 

 

 

Sources:

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) June 26, 1891 page 5

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) June 22, 1891 page 7

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) July 5, 1892 page 7

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) June 18, 1896 page 3

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) May 30, 1902 page 7

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) March 3, 1936 page 2

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) July  31, 1937 page 2

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) · Fri, May 26, 1939 · Page 22

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) · Mon, Nov 27, 1939 · Page 8

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) · Fri, Apr 5, 1940 · Page 9

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Sept 18, 1941 page 17

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Sept 22 1941 page 13

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) Oct  15, 1941 page 11

Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) June  17, 1947 page 14           

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